1 Timothy 3.16

‘eusebeia’, ‘eusebēs’, ‘eusebō’

The remainder of this study concerns Paul’s 21 usages of ‘musterion’. Of these, 3 refer to ‘mysteries’ in the plural, and 12 to THE mystery of the gospel. The next 6 sections, however, deal with his uses of the word to express a particular ‘mystery’, 5 of them referring to the end-times, the future being, by definition, always something of a mystery. This section, however, follows on closely from the last one. There, we looked at Colossians 2.1-2, one of Paul’s 12 references to the mystery of the gospel, and we saw that, essentially, God’s greatest mystery is Jesus Christ himself, hidden through long ages and dimly foreshadowed in the OT scriptures, BUT NOW gloriously revealed, so that in him alone is to be found all that we need to make us truly wise - “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3.15, AV). To pick up an analogy I used earlier, it is the picture of Jesus (“the image of the invisible God”, Col. 1.15) on the lid of the jigsaw box that enables us finally to make sense of all the jumbled pieces scattered throughout the OT; or, to put it more plainly, to develop mystery into knowledge. The verse we shall look at next makes the same point in a slightly different context: “And, as all agree, great is the mystery of godliness, who ‘was revealed in the flesh, made righteous in the Spirit’---” (1 Tim. 3.16). There are a number of difficulties in this verse, and, correspondingly, pages of varying interpretations in the commentaries. What is clear, however, is that ‘the mystery of godliness’ is Christ himself. In the remainder of the verse, Paul continues to quote, whether in whole or part, an early Christian hymn, or creed, consisting of 6 short clauses, each introduced by a verb in the aorist passive (e.g. “was revealed”). Much debate concerns the patterning of these 6 lines - but that need not concern us. What we do need to do, however, if we are to understand Paul’s meaning here, is to look at the Greek word translated (by me, with help from the AV) ‘godliness’: ‘eusebeia’. This noun is used 15 times in the NT, and is derived from the verb ‘eusebō’, to ‘worship’ or ‘show respect’ (used twice); the noun in turn gives rise to the adjective ‘eusebēs’, ‘reverent’ or ‘God-fearing’ (3 times), and the related adverb ‘eusebōs’, ‘reverently’ (twice). It is quite striking that of these 22 instances not one occurs in the gospels; 4 are found in Acts, 4 in 2 Peter, and the remaining 14 in Paul’s pastoral epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. The verb has a long pedigree in Classical Greek, derived from the simple verb ‘sebomai’, to ‘revere’ or ‘worship’, with the prefix ‘eu-’, meaning ‘well’. The simplest example of the verb comes in Paul’s sermon in Athens: “I came across an altar with the inscription ‘To an unknown god’; so what you worship (‘eusebō’) in ignorance, that I declare to you” (Acts 17.23). Earlier in Acts (10.2,7) both Cornelius and the soldier he chooses to escort his two servants to Peter in Joppa are described as ‘eusebēs’, ‘God-fearing’; this was the title generally given to gentiles who, while not proselytes, still worshipped the one true God.


The noun ‘eusebeia’ deserves a paragraph of its own. It seems to have two distinct usages. It can refer to a specific Christian quality, ‘reverence’ or ‘piety’ - the negative connotations that this latter word seems to have acquired are not entirely inappropriate, as we shall see in a moment. In this guise, it appears twice in lists of qualities that Christians should aspire to or ‘pursue’. Paul tells Timothy (1 Tim 6.11) to “pursue righteousness, ‘eusebeia’, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness”; and Peter (2 Peter 1.6) tells his readers to ‘add’ one Christian characteristic to another: “faith - virtue - knowledge - self-control - endurance - ‘eusebeia’ - brotherly-love, - love”. Paul, to Timothy again (8 of the 15 usages of ‘eusebeia’ occur in this one letter), tells him to ensure that the church prays for kings and rulers so that “we may lead peaceable and quiet lives in all godliness (‘eusebeia’) and holiness” (1 Tim. 2.2, NIV). These instances of the word seem to refer to an outward attitude of reverence due to an awesome and holy God; being outward, it may be feigned. Its one occurrence in 2 Timothy comes as the climax to a terrifying list of adjectives describing the wickedness of mankind in the last days (3.2-4); they will be those who “have the appearance of piety (‘eusebeia’) but deny its power” (v.5). Similar, though even more hypocritical, are the ‘heterodox-teachers’ in 1 Timothy 6, who think that an outward show of “piety is profitable” (v.5). Paul then uses these same two words again in the next verse, this time in a positive context: “godliness (‘eusebeia’) with contentment is a great source of [spiritual] profit” - in the Greek the verb ‘is’, unusually, starts the sentence, and so is emphatic. In this latter context Paul seems to be using ‘eusebeia’ not to refer to a single ingredient in a godly character but to ‘godliness’ itself: to be ‘godly’ is to be like God. We have seen already that Paul tells Timothy to ‘pursue’ ‘eusebeia’ as one of a list of characteristics (6.11); but earlier he had told him to “train yourself for godliness; training of the body is useful to a small extent” (or “is of little use” - translation here can depend on whether the translator is a fitness fanatic or a couch-potato!), “but godliness is useful in every way, having promise both for this life and for the life to come” (4.7-8). Here, ‘godliness’ seems to be virtually synonymous with ‘holiness’. Similarly, in its single appearance in Acts, ‘eusebeia’ clearly refers to an inner holiness rather than to outward religious observance. After the healing of the cripple at the ‘Beautiful’ gate of the Temple, a wondering crowd gathers around, and Peter seizes the opportunity to preach a sermon - and to preach Christ: “Men of Israel --- why do you stare at us as though we had made this man to walk by the power of our own godliness?” (‘eusebeia’, 3.12). No, he tells us, it was the power of the risen Jesus that had healed him (v.7).

2 Peter 1.3-4

Our final instance of ‘eusebeia’, which will lead us back to 1 Timothy 3.16, is found at the beginning of Peter’s second letter: “God is his divine power has given us everything we need to live a life of true godliness” (literally, ‘for life and godliness’ - which I take to be a hendiadys). How is this? It is “through our knowledge of Jesus, the one who, in the glory of his goodness” (literally, ‘in his own glory and goodness’ - another hendiadys) “has given us very great and precious promises, so that through claiming them you may become sharers of the very character of God himself” (vv. 3-4). Peter here virtually defines ‘eusebeia’ for us as ‘sharing the character of God’, that is, doing, all too imperfectly, what Jesus himself did perfectly. For us, the way to become godly is to know Jesus, because it is he who has fully revealed what God is like. One day, in the life to come, “we know that we will be like Jesus, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2). But in this life, our goal should be (what we should “pursue”) that our knowledge of Jesus should lead us to be more and more like him, and so become more and more godly - like God.

1 Tim 3.9

How, then, are we to translate and understand ‘eusebeia’ in 1 Timothy 3.16? NEB, followed, regrettably, by the (English!) paragraph heading in the UBS Greek text, has “[great is] the mystery of our religion”. The one virtue of this translation is that it gives us a good reason for looking back up the page to verse 9, where we find another instance of ‘musterion’: Paul tells Timothy to ensure that deacons within the church “hold firmly the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”, that is, they should combine orthodox belief, based on scripture, with upright behaviour. Knight, in his commentary on the Greek text if 1 Timothy, paraphrases “the mystery of the faith” as ‘the revealed truth of the Christian faith’ (p. 169). Paul’s use of ‘musterion’ here is, then, a shorthand version of his fuller ‘overview’ summaries of scripture as ‘mystery - revelation - knowledge’: what was mystery has now, in Christ, become the cornerstone of the Christian faith and the church’s creed. But to interpret the phrase “the mystery of ‘eusebeia’” as just an equivalent expression, taking ‘our religion’ as a synonym for ‘our faith’, seems to me to be indefensible, because nowhere else in its other 14 appearances in the NT can ‘eusebeia’ bear this meaning. As we have seen, it can mean ‘religious observance’ or ‘a reverent, religious attitude’; but whereas ‘pistis’ (‘faith’) is regularly used, in this letter particularly (1.19, 4.1,6, 5.8,12, 6.10,12 - see below - 21), with the definite article to mean ‘the faith’, that is, the body of truth which Christians believe, ‘eusebeia’ is never used to refer to Christianity as a ‘religion’. When James (1.26-7) talks about ‘religion’ in this sense, he uses a quite different word, ‘thrēskeia’.

Romans 10.9-10, 1 Tim 6.12

We will stay, then with “the mystery of godliness”, as both AV and NIV translate this phrase. But the first word in this apparently simple statement also presents a problem. This I translated “as all agree” - and, indeed, all the translations agree on this meaning: “without controversy” (AV), and “beyond all question” (NIV and NEB). The word in question is ‘homologoumenōs’, and this is its only appearance in the NT. It is an adverb (as the long ‘-ōs’ ending indicates), formed, most unusually, from the present participle passive of a verb, the verb ‘homologō’. This verb occurs 26 times in the NT, meaning to ‘declare openly’ or ‘publicly’. Of these occurrences, 13 refer to making a public confession, or profession, of faith in Jesus Christ, and 4 of these are found in 1 John. Paul also uses the word 4 times, and we will look at 3 of them. He tells the Romans: “If you make a public profession (‘homologō’) with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For in the heart faith is exercised for justification, and with the mouth profession is made (‘homologō’ in the passive) for salvation” (10.9-10). From this it appears that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was the earliest and simplest Christian creed. Even closer to home, he tells Timothy at the end of this letter: “Fight the good fight of faith” (or, more probably, since 'pistis' is preceded by the article, “of the Christian faith”, as we saw in the previous paragraph), “and take a firm hold on the eternal life to which you were called when you professed (‘homologō’) the good profession (the related noun, ‘homologia’) [of faith] in the presence of many witnesses” (6.12). This, presumably, refers either to his baptism, or to his ordination as the leader of the church at Ephesus. Perhaps, then, we should translate the first part of our verse: “As we profess as an article of faith in our creed, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness’”, so that the six phrases that follow are a part of, or the whole of, that creed, rather than (or as well as) a hymn.

Lev 11.44-5

The next question is: why is godliness a mystery? We have seen that a mystery is something which God has partly but not wholly revealed. In the OT, God revealed himself to his people as a ‘holy God’, and commanded them to ‘be holy’ as he was holy (Lev. 11.44,45, 19.2, 20.26), and he spelled out for them, on tablets of stone, exactly what it meant to be holy. God thus gives us a prescription for perfect holiness in the OT, but not a model. All the great heroes of faith in the OT were flawed. Abraham lied, Moses was a murderer, David both an adulterer and a murderer-by-proxy; Elijah lost his faith in God and despaired. Perfect godliness, in fact, was a ‘mystery’, like a sub-atomic particle which exists in theory but has never been observed by human eye. It was Jesus who fully revealed “the mystery of godliness” by living a life of perfect holiness in obedience to his Father’s law and his Father’s will. Another illustration comes to mind. We may sit in our armchair and read the text of a great play, and get some sense of the playwright’s purpose and vision. But it is only when we sit in a theatre and watch a great actor incarnating the leading role and bringing it vividly to life that the full impact of the play is experienced. Jesus is the central figure in God’s drama of salvation, and his role required two things of him: that he should lead a sinless life, a life lived in perfect obedience to the script written for him in God’s Law, and that he should die a sacrificial death, as scripted for him by the prophets. In living a holy life, Jesus, alone of mankind, fulfilled God’s command to “be holy as I am holy”, and so revealed God’s holiness in human terms, in the theatre of normal daily life. But had his sole purpose been to set us a perfect example and to show us a perfect picture of God’s holiness, he would have left us in an even more desperate state than he found us in, confronted by a standard of righteousness we knew we could never live up to. But there was another purpose to the ‘mystery’ of Christ’s godliness, even more wonderful than this. Our justification is a two-way transaction: not only are our sins borne by Jesus on the cross, but his perfect righteousness is accredited to us. Not only is the colossal debt of our sin paid for us, but the unimaginable riches of Jesus’ holiness are credited to our account. At a stroke, not of the pen but of God’s sovereign word, we are transformed from helpless debtors to spiritual billionaires.

'phanerō', ‘dikaiō’

We will conclude our study of this verse by looking at just the first two of the statements of the ‘creed’ that follows: “who was made visible in human form, was made righteous in the Spirit ---”. Firstly, it is worth noting that, though the noun it refers to is neuter (‘musterion’), the relative pronoun is masculine, not ‘which’ but ‘who’. By this unexpected, indeed, ungrammatical, usage, Paul makes the point that the “mystery of godliness” is not a truth but a person - the Person who said “I am the truth”. The first statement about Jesus clearly refers to the incarnation, and the verb used, ‘phanerō’, to ‘make clear’ or ‘make visible’, is a synonym for ‘reveal’, and is used as such in two of Paul’s ‘overview’ statements of the mystery of the gospel (Romans 16.26, Col. 1.26). Here, it expresses Paul’s meaning perfectly. In the OT, God’s holiness remained a mystery, spelt out but never perfectly lived out; it was only when “the word became flesh” in Christ that godliness became visible in human terms and in a real human life, the sinless life of Jesus. The two Greek words which I have translated above as “in human form” are ‘en sarki’, ‘in flesh’, and this is obviously contrasted with ‘in Spirit’ in the next phrase. This is the end of the obvious! The verb ‘made righteous’ is ‘dikaiō’, derived from the adjective ‘dikaios’, ‘just’ or ‘righteous’; both adjective and verb are key NT words. The verb is used 39 times in the NT, 27 of them by Paul. Both NIV and NEB translate it here as ‘vindicated’, that is, ‘proved righteous’, a possible translation linguistically, but a difficult concept theologically, especially in conjunction with ‘in Spirit’ (or ‘spirit’). ‘Righteous’ is a virtual synonym for ‘godly’, so that the train of thought, and the antithesis with ‘in flesh’, are better represented by translating, or paraphrasing: “the mystery of godliness became visible in Jesus; in outward appearance (‘the flesh’) he was fully human, but in spirit, the Holy Spirit who completely indwelt him and empowered him, he lived a life of perfect righteousness”.

I have dwelt at some length on this verse - or this much of it - partly because, in my opinion, it is not well served by the translators, partly because it is central to our understanding of Paul’s theology of mystery, and partly because it yields three wonderful truths. First, Jesus perfectly revealed, in human form, the person and perfection of God, which in the OT had only been partly revealed, and so remained a ‘mystery’. Secondly, because Jesus lived a life that was perfectly holy, all those who are ‘in Christ’ are credited by God with all his righteousness. And thirdly, the same Holy Spirit who indwelt Jesus and empowered him to live a life of perfect holiness also indwells and empowers all who are ‘in Christ’. Jesus did not just give us an impossibly perfect example to follow; he gives us, day by day, through his Holy Spirit, the power to live as he lived.

The rest of this verse I leave to the commentators!

Next->the mystery of lawlessness